Iraqi Cinema beyond the Screen

Name of applicant

Pelle Valentin Olsen


Oxford University Linacre College Faculty of Oriental Studies


DKK 750,000



Type of grant

Visiting Fellowships at University of Oxford


In the beginning of the 20th century, Iraqi cities changed rapidly and new public spheres and forms of work and leisure emerged. In the process, modern leisure and entertainment began moving from the private realm into the public and increasingly came to be organized on a commercial scale. One index of these changes was cinema. My project explores the history of the Iraqi cinema industry and investigates the historical intertwinement of capital, culture, and leisure. My project interrogates networks, connections, and the circulation of cultural products and material objects, including films, equipment, and technology and asks how these came together at a particular historical moment with capital, actors, and people with technical skills to establish a film industry in Iraq.


My project will be the first to ask questions about how 20th century trade routes and flows of capital, distribution, production, and circulation networks brought cinema to Iraq. Moving beyond the screen and away from the analysis of individual films, my project pushes cinema history forward through the innovative conception of studying cinema with attention to its transnational, cultural, and material aspects and histories. Challenging the study cinema within purely national contexts, my project focuses on the mobility of the film medium through the movement of technology and film canisters, labor, and cinema stars across vast distances. This enhances our understanding not just of Iraq and its many global connections, but also of early cinema outside of the global centers of gravity.


The intricacies and obstacles related to the writing of Iraqi history are many. Decades of authoritarian rule, instability, sanctions, and three destructive wars have for years made archival research difficult. The loss of sources and the present state of violence in Iraq pose serious challenges to historians. As a result, my project creatively uses previously unconsidered primary materials, including Arabic and Hebrew archival records, fiction and poetry, photography, popular song and music, periodicals, cinema magazines memoirs, and personal accounts by Iraqis involved in the industry. To capture the moral tensions, anxieties, and forms of policing that surrounded cinemas, my project combines historical analysis with close and critical readings of Iraqi literary texts and police records.

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